The Syrian conflict has now been raging for over half a decade, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced.
The frigid capital city of the central Asian nation of Kazakhstan, Astana, was clocking a chilling -17 degrees Celsius on 23 January when various actors of the Syrian civil war arrived for talks on orchestrating yet another ceasefire. The Syrian conflict has now been raging for over half a decade, with hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. As of today, there is yet no end to the brutalities visible on the horizon as President Bashar al-Assad's regime, backed by Moscow and Tehran, continues to hold its ground against a broth of 'opposition' groups, often armed and trained by the West.
The Astana talks have come parallel to the UN-brokered Geneva dialogues to find a resolution on Syria, with some suggesting that the talks hosted by Kazakhstan are Moscow's attempts to take full control of the narrative and move the peace process away from the ambit of the US-led Geneva process. During the time of writing this, news coming in from the Kremlin is suggesting that the third Geneva dialogue, slated to take place on 8 February, has been postponed till an undisclosed date later in the month.
For Moscow, this new platform was a chance to market its own, perhaps not newly found but newly self-admired, place in not just regional Middle East geopolitics but its overall standing in global geopolitics.
In many ways, these two-day long talks had more legitimacy than the previous two editions of the Geneva talks. To begin with, participation from the Syrian opposition here had direct representation, unlike the previous Geneva editions where the opposition was largely represented by political appointees sympathetic to the opposition's causes but not involved directly with the groups. In Astana, the opposition team was lead by Mohammed Aloush of the Jaish al-Islam. Others included Faris Albyosh of the Free Idlib Army, Nasser al-Hariri of the Syrian National Coalition Of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (ETILAF) and the Southern Front's Abu Osama Joulani.
However, despite the coup of getting the Syrian opposition to attend in person, which was orchestrated after various attempts to install and administer a ceasefire last December largely failed, specifically after the brutal assaults on the city of Aleppo, the peace process continues to suffer from immense number of fractures and diplomatic crevasses not just between the rebel opposition but within the orchestrators as well. Despite these conditions, the three major external role-players, Russia, Turkey and Iran released a joint trilateral declaration agreement to become guarantors of the ceasefire between the Syrian government and the opposition groups.
Even though the talks have been put together via a joint effort between Russia, Turkey and Iran, all these three countries more than often do not see their personal interests converge with each other. UN's Special Envoy for Syria, Steffan de Mistura, represented the Secretary General's office while the US was only present as an observer via its Ambassador to Kazakhstan, George A. Kroll. Even though it has been no secret that Russia has massively backed Assad's regime with a large military presence in the country, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has made no qualms in his stance that Assad must eventually abdicate power and leave the presidency. Both Russia and Turkey only some months ago were directly at loggerheads over Syria, but today are flying joint strike missions against ISIS around the region of al-Bab in the north-east of Aleppo, where Ankara is also orchestrating a ground offensive not just against ISIS but certain rebel factions as well, including those associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). According to reports, 47 Turkish soldiers have been killed and 11 Turkish Army tanks destroyed over the past two months. Some Turkish soldiers were also captured by ISIS, and later showed up captured in cages for one of ISIS's propaganda videos (read my previous piece for detailed explanation on Russia — Turkey dynamics in Syria).
The head of the Russian delegation, Alexander Lavrentiev, hailed the talks as the "birth" of a new negotiation's format and highlighted that the achievements secured here would strengthen the UN brokered talks in Geneva significantly. This was an attempt to rebrand the Syria dialogue process in a way where the Kremlin takes the diplomatic forefront as well, keeping the US at bay even as Moscow and Ankara had to convince Tehran, which was vehemently opposed to any US presence, to allow the US ambassador to attend.
Iran has been the wild card in Astana. The Syrian opposition has had a strong aversion to its presence at the talks, with Tehran playing a not-so-clandestine role in the country using its elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Hezbollah together in the Syrian civil war. So much so that the rebels not only refused to endorse the trilateral ceasefire agreement due to Iran, but also submitted a separate proposal on the ceasefire where they openly questioned Tehran's legitimacy as a ceasefire guarantor.
At the talks, the Syrian opposition made its allegiances, comfort zones and apprehensions clear as they sat down between the Turkish delegation and the US ambassador and his team of observers while the Syrian government representatives, led by Syria's permanent representative to the UN, Bashar Jafaari, sidled up with the Iranian team led by Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari. The Syrian opposition's unease at Iran's presence is not unfounded, as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has played a shadowy yet critical role in keeping Assad's position intact. And as a reward, Iranian government and the IRGC, who themselves are known to have deep economic interests around the region, have as per some reports lined up to reap benefits from economic deals in Syria, including 1,000 hectares of land for oil and gas exploration, 5,000 hectares for farming and contracts for telecommunications. In Iran, much of telecommunications are under IRGC’s ambit.
As part of its posturing, Russia in an unexpected move also pulled-up the Assad regime for not fully adhering to the ceasefire agreements, and said that it did not differentiate between which side broke the understanding first. The Russians went on to add that if Assad's forces were found in violations, appropriate action would be taken. This empowerment of Russia in-midst of all the factions taking part, however, also comes at the price of increased skepticism amongst its own partners in Iran and Turkey rather than the rebels who look towards Russia with a much more sense of purpose. Moscow is seen as not an 'immediate neighbor', hence its intervention is not going to be a decades long story (despite the fact that Russia has signed an agreement with Assad on long-term use of the country's military bases). The rebels at some level seem to believe that cozying up to Russia could undercut the deeper regional interests of both Turkey and Iran.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Syria, the situation between rebel groups was not the most fluid itself as opinions remain divided over the perpetuated peace process which obviously excludes ISIS, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as the Al-Qaeda aligned Jabhat al-Nusra) and any Kurdish rebel groups who were denied any access by the mere presence of Turkey at the talks. As the opposition groups and all other parties debated, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS) intensified its armed attacks on various parts of Idlib and Aleppo. In response, smaller factions such as Alwiyat Suqour al-Sham, Kataib Thawar al-Sham, Jaish al-Mujahideen and Tajamo Fastaqim Kama Umirat joined Ahrar al-Sham, one of the country's largest rebel groups taking on the JFS (important to note both JFS and Ahrar are ideologically not that different). To put the complexity on the ground in perspective, to drive out ISIS from al-Bab, Turkey is allegedly backing the JFS, Russia the Assad regime, and Western backed Kurdish and multi-ethnic groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) often also have to fight both the Syrian government troops and Turkish backed JFS fighters, while all of them also tackle ISIS at the same time.
The heat against the JFS intensified a day after the Astana talks ended. The Syrian Islamic Council, which is known to have strong influence on many factions currently operating in Syria, labeled the JFS as takfiris, calling all Syrians to fight the group till victory. This call from the SIC came as the JFS attacked a prison in Idlib freeing many ISIS and JFS fighters as the talks took place in Astana. The JFS has also in recent past started to use crude 'armed' homemade drones, adding a new and critical dimension to the capabilities of the group, which perhaps should not be surprising seeing how resourceful Al-Qaeda as an organisation has known to be in the past.
Most ceasefires in the past have no stood the test of realpolitik in the recent past. Even as Ankara, Tehran and Moscow come in as joint guarantors, it looks unlikely a long-term freeze of hostilities between opposition groups and the Syrian government would be successfully put in place under current circumstances. A reason for this is not intent, but the sheer number of diverging interests within the guarantors and within the opposition groups. Even as the Astana Process was aiming to both undermine yet publicly offer a mirage of strength to the Geneva talks, the wake of the Kazakh dialogue seems to have been counter-productive. The UN, at the time of writing, was maintaining that there was no confirmation from Moscow whether the Geneva talks had been postponed or not.
It is possible that Moscow would look to push back the Geneva dialogue in order to give newly elected President of the United States, Donald Trump, to offer his new administration's take on the Syrian crisis. While Russian President Vladimir Putin expects a good relationship with the US under Trump, it would be highly surprising if both the parties find a common ground on the trajectory of the talks, future of the conflict and the legitimacy of Assad's presidency. Perhaps the only good news for the Syrian people to take home from all this is that there is no shortage of attempts to be made over this elusive nationwide ceasefire, that so often seem to lead nowhere.
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Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...Read More +
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